Grow Your Own Mint

Punch up the flavor of a salad or a cream sauce with a sprinkling of minced fresh mint.

| August/September 2004

What would a julep be without the mint? Or a creamy Middle Eastern raita? The many uses of mint (Mentha) range from making our favorite drinks and dishes to settling upset tummies to scenting our hair and homes to brightening bouquets to repelling flies, ants and other unwelcome insects from our patios, decks and back porches.

In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder, one of the world’s first natural historians, observed that mint’s aroma “reanimates the spirit.” He probably was referring to Mentha spicata, wild spearmint.

In North America, early settlers discovered that mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum) made a darn fine tea and helped ease the pain of toothaches, too. The medicinal qualities of mint are due to its menthol, which aids digestion, calms hiccups, soothes intestinal cramps and just happens to taste wonderful, too. With the exception of the pennyroyals (M. pulegium [European] and Hedeoma pulegioides [North American]), which contain toxic compounds that can cause liver failure and even death, most mints can be used freely in cooking and for calming troubled tummies.

These days, gardeners can choose from a dazzling array of flavorful mints in addition to the old favorites, peppermint and spearmint. Some new varieties even carry the subtle scents of apple, pineapple and chocolate. Peppermint still offers the strongest aroma, making it the best choice for fragrant bouquets, fresh or dried, and for room and closet freshening. For culinary purposes, including in drinks, spearmint is tops. ‘Kentucky Colonel’ spearmint is perfect in the famed Southern mint julep, and lime-tasting ‘Margarita’ is great in margaritas. Any cold drink — including chilled milk — gets a flavor lift from a bruised sprig of mint.

Mint Cooking Tips

In cooking, fresh mint gives the best flavor and appeal; use young leaves pinched from stem tips for the sprightliest flavor. In fruit salads, fresh mint partners well with apples, pears or strawberries. To dress poached apples, pears and peaches, make a pesto of fresh mint, a little sugar and vinegar.

Fresh mint also is essential in many Middle Eastern dishes, including tabouli, a chilled salad made from cracked wheat (bulgur), parsley, tomatoes and mint (recipe here).

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